President Trump’s frustration last week over special counsel Robert Mueller not investigating the Democrats’ links to Russia election meddling is aimed at Christopher Steele, the British ex-spy who compiled and imported the unverified dossier.
“The only ‘Collusion’ is that of the Democrats with Russia and many others,” he tweeted Nov. 15.
Mr. Steele is a paid Democratic Party operative who spread among Washington power elites pre-Election Day Trump gossip originating from Moscow.
Mr. Mueller has made a theme of enforcing the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), which requires people working on behalf of foreigners to register with the Justice Department or face criminal liability. He also has charged Russian nationals with fraud against the U.S. by interfering in the 2016 election.
The Steele issue has reached Mr. Mueller. An attorney for one indicted Russian firm, Concord Management and Consulting LLC, accused Mr. Mueller of selective prosecution.
Why is Concord charged with election interference, but Mr. Steele is not? asked Washington attorney Eric Dubelier.
Mr. Mueller responded by saying Mr. Steele’s actions are not on a par with elaborate Russian social media trolling and computer hacking. But his court argument didn’t explicitly say Mr. Steele is innocent of interference.
U.S. District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich rejected the Concord argument. She upheld the Mueller indictment in a ruling last week, saying it is indeed a crime for foreigners — in this case troll farming Concord — to meddle in U.S. elections. Foreigners face restrictions on what roles they can play in U.S. elections.
Some conservatives disagree with Mr. Mueller brushing aside Mr. Steele’s actions. They make the case that Mr. Steele not only influenced the 2016 election but also infected the entire political system with unsubstantiated felony charges against Trump people that remain publicly unverified today.
Mr. Steele was paid by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party via its law firm and the investigative firm Fusion GPS. An FBI document says he continued to investigate Mr. Trump well after the election, financed by rich Democratic donors.
“In theory, everything Mueller is investigating the Russians for could be applied to the whole Fusion GPS/Clinton campaign/DNC operation,” said Tom Fitton, who directs Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog that specializes in suing for government records.
“The dossier was intended to impact the election. That is why Clinton operatives, Fusion GPS and Steele leaked info about it before the election,” Mr. Fitton said. “And, ironically, as Steele supposedly used Russia intel sources for the dossier, it arguably is another way in which the Russians sought to interfere with our elections.”
To conservatives like Mr. Fitton, the Mueller narrative against Concord is similar to actions of Mr. Steele and his Orbis Business Intelligence firm in London.
The Mueller indictment against Concord Management and Consulting states that the U.S. “regulates the activities of foreign individuals and entities in and affecting the United States in order to prevent, disclose, and counteract improper foreign influence on U.S. elections and on the U.S. political system.”
The indictment also says “U.S. law also bars agents of any foreign entity from engaging in political activities within the United States without first registering with the Attorney General.” This is a reference to FARA.
And then there is the FARA language itself. It defines a person required to register as one “acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity.” A principal can be a country, company or merely other foreigners.
The Justice Department says FARA’s purpose is to ensure that U.S. residents “are informed of the source of information (propaganda) and the identity of persons attempting to influence U.S. public opinion, policy, and laws.” “Propaganda” is FARA’s description in parentheses.
What did Mr. Steele, as a foreigner, do to influence the election?
For one, his stated purpose was to destroy Mr. Trump. He told that to then-Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr, according to Mr. Ohr’s briefing to the FBI.
Second, he compiled charges against Trump associates based on information from Kremlin figures. They were various unnamed intelligence and government officials who could qualify as “principals” under FARA.
Third, Mr. Steele brought his conspiracy theories to the U.S. in the fall of 2016 with the express intent to influence the election. Under Fusion GPS’ guidance, he provided his allegations to a who’s who of Washington news bureaus.
Two of them, Yahoo News and Mother Jones magazine, published before Election Day his charges of a vast Russia-Trump conspiracy. The Clinton campaign, which was being briefed on the dossier, used the allegation to attack Mr. Trump. Then-Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid also cited dossier charges in a letter to the FBI that was published in The New York Times.
All the while, Mr. Steele remained anonymous.
Why not Clinton?
The Mueller indictment against Concord says the U.S. regulates “foreign individuals” to prevent “improper foreign influence on U.S. elections and on the U.S. political system.”
Mr. Steele’ dossier had broad impact on the political system, conservatives say.
For example, the accusations against Mr. Trump disrupted his transition. Then-FBI director James B. Comey, without telling the president-elect the dossier was Democratic Party opposition research, briefed him on some of its most salacious charges. The story then was leaked by Obama appointees to CNN and became a dominant transition news story.
The dossier also has greatly influenced Congress. For example, Democrats on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence repeatedly cited its charges in questioning top intelligence officials. Democrats have praised the dossier in multiple TV appearances.
If the U.S. “political system,” includes the Justice Department, the dossier dictated steps taken by the FBI to investigate Mr. Trump. In secret, the FBI used it to obtain a year’s worth of wiretaps on a Trump campaign volunteer as well as to pursue other campaign associates. The full story of how the dossier permeated the thoughts of Obama appointees at Justice and the FBI has yet to be told.
In U.S. District Court, Mr. Dubelier, Concord’s lawyer, cited Mr. Steele’s anti-Trump operation.
“Steele allegedly used the media to influence the 2016 election while concealing his identity and foreign nationality,” Mr. Dubelier said in an Oct. 5 filing.
“Moreover, Steele’s ultimate goal was to publicly leak the information while remaining anonymous, which is far more egregious than private Russian individuals posting opinions on social media,” he said.
A check of the FARA registration database does not show Mr. Steele or his company.
In rebutting Mr. Dubelier’s argument, Mr. Mueller said Mr. Steele’s operation didn’t come close to Concord’s deception and influence, with its multiple fake social media posts and staged political rallies.
“None of Concord’s examples remotely compares to this systematic, deceptive effort to interfere in our democracy,” the Mueller brief said.
Not addressed by Mr. Mueller is whether Mr. Steele was in fact a foreign agent who influenced the U.S. political system.
Mr. Dubelier argues that far from being a minor involvement, Mr. Steele’s dossier had far-reaching effects.
“Steele was working on-and-off as a confidential human source for the FBI, and interacted with other U.S. federal officials — including officials from the DOJ, FBI, State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, and staff of members of Congress — in an effort to disseminate his unverified dossier of allegations against Trump, Russian officials, and others,” he said.
The May 2017 Justice Department appointment order tells Mr. Mueller to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.”
Conservatives and the president ask why was the Clinton campaign has been excluded. It paid money to a foreign agent, Mr. Steele, who had numerous links to Russian government officials and used their information to influence the election and the U.S. political process.
Mr. Trump has criticized Mr. Mueller for compiling a staff of mostly lawyers who donated to the Democratic Party. One example is Andrew Weissmann, a top Mueller prosecutor who attended what was supposed to be a Clinton victory party in New York and cheer-led a Obama Justice Department appointee who defied Mr. Trump.
Mr. Steele, before the election, had been an on-again, off-again paid FBI source.
If the Justice Department were to investigation Mr. Steele, it would be probing a dossier on which it depended extensively to hunt Trump associates.